How I sell pretty nearly everything

I manage a supermarket. While handling everything from eggs to golf balls, I find I’m also running a guided tour for customers who are so fascinated by the business they even count the cars in my parking lot

CLIFFORD V. FRENCH November 21 1959

How I sell pretty nearly everything

I manage a supermarket. While handling everything from eggs to golf balls, I find I’m also running a guided tour for customers who are so fascinated by the business they even count the cars in my parking lot

CLIFFORD V. FRENCH November 21 1959

How I sell pretty nearly everything

I manage a supermarket. While handling everything from eggs to golf balls, I find I’m also running a guided tour for customers who are so fascinated by the business they even count the cars in my parking lot



I’M THE MANAGER of Steinberg’s supermarket in Dorval, a suburb of Montreal. The position is demanding and the hours are long but this is offset by the fact that my customers feel they can come to me for help and advice and that I am taking a part in the daily life of my community. And the job has its lighter side in the incidents that take place.

Once a week, sometimes oftener, the suburban housewife puts her child in a shopping carriage, glances at the news on the customers’ bulletin board, lights a cigarette, and sets out on a cook’s tour of the nine glittering aisles. She picks up groceries, meats, fruits, vegetables, housewares, perhaps a magazine, stamp premium, panda bear, dictionary, encyclopedia, record, potted plant, set of golf balls, child's blackboard,


pair of scissors, maple tree or pair of baby pants.

Occasionally she gets into a state of nerves. She often stops to gossip with a neighbor. She loves to give me advice, and it’s usually good advice (most of the changes made in stores like mine in the Steinberg chain have been suggested by customers). She sometimes becomes engrossed in the operation of a supermarket, and an occasional customer listens in to shop talk in hopes of getting a bit of inside information on new food developments.

One time recently a woman eavesdropped on a conversation between myself and a salesman from a big packing house. He was telling me about all the good things they packed into their dog food and got so carried away with the idea that he said all their salesmen had to eat some

of it so that they’d know how really good it was. When he'd gone, the woman customer, who had been stalling around in hearing distance, came over and said she’d heard what that man said and she thought she’d try a couple of tins on her husband.

“Madam,” I said, “that was a salesman you were listening to. 1 suggest you look into the matter more closely.”

But generally our customer goes her own way, shopping efficiently, making the best use of the layout of our store. She prefers to serve herself. Self-service started because customers like it. A customer likes to feel that what she spends for supper is something strictly between herself and her purse, and she likes to be able to take her time shopping, instead of fighting for

position at a counter and competing for a clerk.

As she enters our store at Dorval, she first comes to a checking booth. This is arranged so that she can check her bags, get rid of empty bottles and buy cigarettes. If a customer lights up a cigarette, it helps relax her. The more comfortable you make her the oftener she’ll come back.

All Steinberg’s stores have meats at the entrance of the store. Meals are prepared around the meat, so we feel that the customer should be sold the meat first. This is primarily for the customer’s convenience, but it’s good sales psychology too. Meat is the biggest single expense in the food business. If you sell it last, you’re selling the customer the biggest item not only when she’s on her way

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out and wants to get her shopping over with, but when she's starting to count her money.

From then on she follows a system of direction signs that we’ve tried to arrange so that the customer will end up with the lightest things and the frozen foods last. Some customers, especially men, still go through the store like a billiard ball banked off the end cushion, but experienced. fast shoppers look up automatically for traffic signs. Customers like to tell one another that they're going the wrong way.

If the customer picks something up, there's a fifty-fifty chance that she'll buy it, so we have tables just the right height to be convenient for her inspection. For some reason she likes to pick certain things, like laces or shoe polish, from a jumble, so we have "dump” displays. She won't break a neat, geometrically arranged display. We always start the first row for her: that is, we leave an unfinished row at the top. If she buys weiners, she looks right away for mustard; if she buys soft drinks, she looks for straws. Wc make a point of having these related things together.

She tends to buy mostly from eyelevel shelves, where we put goods with the biggest volume of sales. She has some peculiar shopping habits. She squeezes all the bread on a twenty-foot shelf, then goes back and takes a loaf from the centre. We've never figured out how she can tell whether a loaf of sliced bread is fresh by squeezing it.

Customers want out fast

But customers do tell us about other things. They count the cars in my parking lot and come in and tell me how many there are there. Customers who don't even have a car tell me how many cars I have in my parking lot. A woman buttonholed me the other day to tell me that the "In” door was five feet farther away from the merchandise than the "Out” door, and thought it should be changed. I told her that if we did this, when she went out. she'd have five feet more to walk than she did now, and she went away happy.

By the time a woman hits the cash register she wants to get out as fast as she can. This is the part where you hand over the housekeeping allowance. Up until then she secretly enjoys it, comparing deals, looking for premiums as if she were panning for gold, holding Javex up to the light like rare old wine, doing her duty and coming as close as modern woman comes to working her fingers to the bone slaving over a hot stove for her family. But when she's through, she wants out fast, and she complains if she doesn't move fast enough. I've seen a woman stand for two hours talking to a friend with people pushing carriages past them like traffic passing someone with a fiat tire on the freeway, then say goodbye, wait for ten minutes, look up at the clock, ask for me and say she'd been waiting in the line-up for two hours.

Which was perfectly true. She had, right in the middle of it.

Between the time a woman enters the store and the time she leaves, she loves to get me explaining things. One time a fresh-air intake was drawing in odors from a faulty incinerator and blowing them out through the store and a woman came up and told me that our barbecued chickens smelled bad. She wasn’t buying a chicken. She just thought I'd like to know.

"It's the incinerator, ma'm,” I said, “not the chickens. You see, there’s a duct up on the roof.” I started to explain the whole thing. She listened, pursing her lips, and finally said;

“You ought to be selling things like air conditioners.”

“Yeah?” 1 said. “Well, this duct only operates ...”

"If you don’t like managing a supermarket why don't you change jobs?”

"Lady,” 1 said, "I love managing a supermarket. If you’ll just give me five minutes of your time without interruption I can clear this up. I’ll take you up on the roof.”

"What for?” she said. “I can see where you’re barbecuing the chickens.”

I talked to her for at least half an hour. She wasn't mad. She enjoyed it. I was beginning to be fascinated myself, but 1 had work to do.

A while ago we had a sale of longplaying records and a woman came up and asked me whether our recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was as good as the recording made by Toscanini. I wouldn’t know a record by Toscanini from a fresh meat loaf, but I have a good answer. I said, “I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. There’s not much, give and take, between one and the other. Take it home and try it and if it doesn't meet with your approval bring it back for a refund.”

A week later she was back, on a busy Saturday, telling me that the oboe missed a note in the middle of the third movement and the French horn muffed one in centre field, while I had an ear tuned to the music of eighteen cash registers and a woman was waiting to go on proving to me that she got more ounces of rolled oats for less by buying two ordinary size boxes instead of one giant economy size and I was wondering what to do about a little boy who was refusing to get down off our space ship so another little boy could blast off.

Once a kid gets up on one of our rides, he gets a dazed look in his eye and trying to pry him off it is like trying to get the first package out of a crate. He doesn’t care if it’s moving. He's moving. You can tell by looking at him. But when a cash-customer is waiting with a dime, I have to go up and say, “Look, sonny, this other little boy wants a turn. You come back later, eh?”

He gets down, goes to his mother and says that big man made him get off and his mother comes up and wants to know why her Willy hasn't as much right to go to Mars as somebody else's kid. I explain it all and a light slowly dawns in her eyes as she begins to see the real Willy.

To most kids who help their mothers shop the fact that you pay at the other end is all news to them. One time a little girl and her brother came in, filled a shopping carriage with a week's supply of groceries, and pushed it right past the cashiers and me without our seeing it, although I don’t know yet how, and headed for home to set the table. A woman customer spotted them and told me about it.

When 1 caught up with them I said. “What have you got there?”

“We’ve been shopping,” the boy said,

obviously wishing I would go away.

“Well, wait a minute. I mean, let's pretend you're going home this way.” I said, pointing back to the store.

The youngsters couldn’t understand why. They probably decided Steinberg’s w'as for the birds.

There is one boy I’m keeping my eye on as a potential manager. He has a thing going at the site of a construction job near our store. He gathers up the workers’ empty pop bottles, comes in to our store and buys six bottles for thirtysix cents then goes back and sells them to the same workers for ten cents each and waits for them to throw the bottles away, then he starts all over again. He even offers premiums. We give little metal rulers away and he comes around often enough to get a supply and gives one away free with each drink. He’s only nine and he has saved forty dollars for a trip to Europe. I figure he’ll make it by the time he’s ten.

The really small fry are among our best customers; they sit in the shopping basket throwing everything in the carriage with Tonto on the carton top, as well as everything else they like, and usually manage it so that their mothers don't notice till they get to the parcel desk. Then as often as not they buy the extra items instead of having to take them back.

Husbands are even better than the kids. A man is a born impulse buyer. He keeps throwing tempting things into the carriage — eight different kinds of cheese, twelve tins of shrimp, lobster and crab meat to put in his hobby shop. He chuckles at the thought of the little snacks he's going to have while working at his lathe. Then he and his wife reach the cash register, he steps over to the

magazine counter and starts looking at some cheesecake, and his wife starts taking out all the things he threw in. looking as if she were pulling silk stockings out of his coat pocket.

She calls, "How about this stuff you picked out?”

“What about it?” he says.

“Who's going to pay for it?”

"Aw, come on. kid,” he says, "I like lobster.”

"I like mink stoles too,” his wife says, "but I have to account for where my housekeeping money goes. If you want them, you buy them.”

When a man shops alone he likes to take the whole thing at a canter and get it over with, and often if his list isn't made out according to the same plan as the store is laid out, he throws the list away and does it all by a sort of mental radar. An hour later his wife comes back with a disgusted look and four dollars worth of stuff to exchange and does all the shopping over again.

But when a man is held up at the counter, he's worse than a woman. You can reason with a woman, tell her how you’ve got three cashiers away and a stock-room boy just joined the navy and she'll listen with interest, feeling that she's being let in on the business world. But when a man wants out he wants out and you can't reason with him. You can't talk to him. He just says:

"If you don't get me out of here. I’ll leave the whole damned order.”

"We're doing our best, sir.”

"Why don’t you open that other register and get cracking?"

"The girl’s sick.”

"Why don't you get another girl?”

"Yes, sir. We've got scouts out."

Whether I'm dealing with men or women I've found that the main thing about managing a supermarket, is that you have to be able to get along with people — the men, the women, the kids, the rich, the poor, the calm ones and the ones in a state of nerves.

A while ago I was up at the front of the store peering out over the parking lot for a guy who had been taking my carriage baskets home then phoning me and trying to sell them back to me for five dollars. I happened to look around just as a woman at the cash register burst into tears. I went over and asked her if anything was the matter and she said "No,” and started to cry harder, the way my wife does when I ask her if there s anything the matter.

She kept on helping the cashier and crying and throwing her potatoes on top of her cup cakes and mashing them to a pulp.

“Is there something we've done?” I said.

"It's that husband of mine."

"What did he do?"

"He was supposed to be here an hour ago with some money,” she said.

I told her he was probably held up by traffic, or a big deal, and thought of a few more things I think of when 1 m late for supper, and in the middle of it her husband came in.

"Where were you?” his wife said.

"Look, Honey — ” he began.

"Don't you honey me,” she said.

He started to tell her what had happened. It was just as I thought. He'd been held up by traffic. By this time I was so involved that without realizing what I was saying I said triumphantly, "You see, Honey!"

She took it in good part. She probably felt that I was one of the family, which is pretty much the way I feel about my customers. It’s one of the things I like about managing a supermarket. ^